Chapter 1: What Does “the Gospel” Really Mean?

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 1: What Does “the Gospel” Really Mean?

Chapter 1: What Does "the Gospel" Really Mean?



And he told them many things in parables...

--Matthew 13:3

And he taught them many things in parables...

--Mark 4:2

He told them a parable also...

--Luke 5:36

I have said this to you in parables...

--John 16:25


What is the Gospel?

The phone rang in my office, and Dan Potter, Executive Director of the New York City Council of Churches, said he was in trouble. It was the early spring of 1963, and since I had been in the new Methodist Board of Missions offices at the Interchurch Center only a few months, I still enjoyed swiveling in my desk chair around to look out my picture window. On a clear day, I could see the Ramapo Mountains across the Hudson River and some twenty miles away. "We have a problem," Dan said. "There are just a few months left until the New York World's Fair, begins, and we can't get going on our film for the Protestant Pavilion. Can you help?"

A few days later three "film doctors" -- Lois Anderson from the American Baptist Churches, John Bachman from Union Theological Seminary, and I -- were ushered into a room filled with representatives of Protestant New York, forty-three people from religious organizations across the spectrum, including every group from rock-bound fundamentalists to far-out liberals. We were supposed to create order out of chaos.

For two years these people had been meeting, and disagreeing, regularly. Script after script had been rejected, proposals scuttled, formats abandoned. For several minutes they glowered at each other across the table. Then the representative from the Salvation Army made a suggestion that posed both the solution and the problem.

"Why don't we produce a film that just tells the simple Gospel story?" he said. There were vigorous nods; everyone agreed. That's what we need! The BASIC GOSPEL STORY! Then, for two hours, everyone disagreed as to what the basic Gospel story was. For some, it was John 3:16. For others, it was the Sermon on the Mount. Conservatives wanted Luke, literally, while the liberals wanted John, metaphorically. Some wanted the miracles in, others wanted them out. And, of course, what version of the Bible would be used? Would Jesus talk in Old English or up-to-date American? And so on.

We left that meeting in a daze. Something had to be done, and fairly quickly. The World's Fair was fast approaching and the Protestant Council of New York was building a beautiful new movie theatre on the fair grounds just for the film -- our film -- which was supposed to rival "The Pieta" which was being shipped over from Rome by the Catholics.

We went to Rolf Forsberg, one of the most creative film makers we knew. We asked him to talk with Harvey Cox, a theologian who had experience with television and film. They talked for two days. Rolf knew an old circus town in Wisconsin that had fascinating visuals. Harvey knew all about historic Christ symbols, including the clown.

And so they proposed to us, and we proposed to the committee, a film with no dialog, no scenes of the Holy Land, no Bible characters. Instead, the film would be about a clown who comes riding into town on a donkey; he's with a rather motley circus; he experiences the human failings of the circus people; he encounters Magnus, who wants to dominate and control; he substitutes himself for a poor human-puppet and is killed by Magnus. But then Magnus himself puts on the clown's white face, and at the end, the clown rides again into the next town -- with the circus of life.

And they loved it! They agreed to it in a half-hour when they had not agreed on anything else in two years. They agreed to it because every man and woman on that committee saw in it his or her own understanding of "the basic Gospel story." They knew what the Gospel meant to them, and they saw the Gospel in this story.

What we had proposed was a parable. The film was produced, and "Parable" became one of the hits of the New York World's Fair; after thirty years it still enjoys vigorous circulation as a discussion starter among youth and adults who want to explore the meaning of Jesus and the Gospel story.

I learned two important lessons from that experience. One is that it is truly impossible for any of us to uncover the "real" Gospel story, because the "real" Gospel story always comes to us wrapped in a cultural history we can never fully understand. In fact, the more that biblical scholars penetrate into the record, the more enigmatic and uncertain that record becomes. Let's explore this further before going on to the second lesson I learned that day.

Did Jesus Say That?

In 1985, a group of thirty Protestant and Catholic scholars from colleges and seminaries across the United States met to consider the written statements of Jesus in the light of the idioms, history, and cultural setting of his time, and so to try to determine which statements are "authentic" and which are not. Called the Jesus Seminar, the group meets twice each year, and thus far they have agreed that Jesus did not say many of the things attributed to him.

For example, only three of a dozen "blessings" and "woes" from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are believed actually to have come from Jesus. Those considered authentic include, from Luke: "Blessed are you poor ... you that hunger ... you that weep." But "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God," and "the meek who shall inherit the earth" are both unlikely to have actually been said by Jesus. Rather, they come from traditions well known to have been in existence before the time of Jesus. 1

Also, the Lord's Prayer probably was not composed by Jesus at all, but was more likely the work of early Christians who wrote it after the crucifixion. Only four lines ("hallowed be thy name/thy kingdom come/give us this day our daily bread/and forgive us our debts") may be paraphrases things Jesus actually said during his lifetime, though it is unlikely Jesus ever put these lines together in a single prayer.

Dr. Robert W. Funk, New Testament scholar and organizer of the Jesus Seminar, points out that all four New Testament gospels were written forty years or more after Jesus' crucifixion, and though church tradition says that the disciples Matthew and John both wrote gospels, Bible scholars for more than a century have believed that none of the gospel writers actually knew Jesus during his lifetime. Instead, these authors were dependent on written and oral accounts that had already undergone interpretation and were based on traditions built up to reflect the needs and expectations of the early believers. For example, for many years most biblical commentaries have pointed out that a writer called "Q" is considered the source of the many similar sayings in both Matthew and Luke, and "Matthew" and Luke" both incorporated Q's material in their testaments. Also, the Jesus Seminar group believes that the Lord's Prayer probably originated with "Q". 2

What is "the Gospel"?

Over the centuries, biblical scholars have offered widely differing views about "the Gospel." In the fourth century, St. Jerome, one of the first true scholars of the church and translator of the Old and New Testaments into what became the Vulgate Bible, asserted that everything written in the Bible is literally true. For the next thousand years the Bible was generally seen as divinely inspired and unassailably accurate in every detail. However by the Reformation in the 16th century, Martin Luther not only translated the Gospels, but he interpreted them in printed sermons as well, and when John Calvin, Roger Williams and others broadly disagreed in print with Luther on such matters as what the scriptures said about the role of government in society, the whole matter of scriptural interpretation was opened to thousands of individuals who for the first time could read (or have read to them) the published documents.

By the 18th century, scholars began to subject the scriptures to the same kind of scientific inquiry they were applying to all of their observations -- nothing was taken on faith. The Age of Reason in the late 18th century pressed this approach even further, looking behind the scriptures to discover the historical reality. Perhaps the most eminent of these early Bible scholars was Thomas Jefferson who, shortly after he left the White House, wrote a biography of Jesus, "abstracting what is really his [Jesus'] from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill." 3

By the 19th and early 20th centuries, biblical scholars, mainly in Germany, were sifting out the "dross" in an attempt to get behind the words to the flesh and blood Jesus. The most famous was Albert Schweitzer's biography known as "the quest for the Historical Jesus." By 1926 Rudolf Bultmann of Marburg University concluded that all such attempts to find the "real" Jesus were fruitless, because the Bible is so full of legends and unprovable events that "we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus." 4

But still the search goes on for meanings, if not the facts, in the Old and New Testaments. Today biblical scholars such as Thomas Oden of Drew Theological Seminary have rediscovered the importance of Jewish culture in providing new understandings about Jesus and the Gospel. For example, says Oden, "There is evidence that Jesus taught his disciples to recall his teachings by heart. We have the ipsissima verba, the exact words of Jesus. Why should they have been reported if they hadn't been actually remembered?" 5 And theologian Edward Shillebeeckx writes: "In the historical man Jesus there must be present some ground or reason for our being able to acknowledge him in that way." 6

Clearly, people who became Christians were responding to something. Jesus was a superb communicator. He took into account the cultural setting of his audience. As theologian Lucien Richards says, "He had to speak a language they could understand, perform actions they would find intelligible, and conduct his life and undergo his death in a manner of which they could make some sense." 7

But exactly what he said and exactly how he acted is filtered, for all of time, through those who saw and heard him: "The only knowledge we possess of the Christ event reaches us via the concrete experience of the first local communities of Christians who were sensitive of a new life present in them." 8 Reports of that experience was fragmentary and it was always filtered through the needs and expectations of the men and women in that first believing community.

And what were those needs and expectations? "The first community, in order to affirm that Jesus was more than one of the prophets -- that his authority had a certain finality or absoluteness about it not found in others -- had few options left to it but to tell the story of Jesus in such a way that his authority would become apparent and would confront other hearers, as it had confronted those who had witnessed it, with the necessity to make up their minds -- to declare themselves for or against Jesus." 9

Stephen Crites has this pointed observation about the way in which truth is communicated by ordinary people -- including those men and women of the First Century who experienced the Christ event in their own lives:

Honest men try to tell the truth, but in order to do so they are obliged, like liars, to tell stories . . . Stories have been told, and told with imagination, in the serious attempt to speak the truth that concerns human life most deeply. 10

This explains why the New Testament is such an imaginative and compelling work, even today, and also why it cannot be taken "literally." Amos Wilder, the great Bible scholar, has written that "the New Testament writings are in large part works of the imagination, loaded, charged and encrusted with every kind of figurative resource and invention." 11 And Sallie McFague, professor of theology at Vanberbilt Divinity School, takes on the fundamentalist viewpoint head-on: "This may be blasphemy to the literal-minded; but it is fortunate that the New Testament writers were endowed with rich imaginations, for otherwise the New Testament would hold little chance of being revelatory." 12

But even when we understand why, for example, the New Testament writers went to great pains to confirm Jesus' birth in Old Testament predictions of a Savior, or to relate his biological lineage to King David, or to tie his betrayal and death to other Old Testament prophecies ("so that the scriptures might be fulfilled") -- we still are left with a fragmentary puzzle instead of a clear picture of the "real" Jesus. For example, if we had only the writings of Paul (which probably were the very earliest reports about Jesus to have been written down), we would never have read that Jesus ever taught in parables or proverbs, or that he performed miracles, or that he was born of a virgin, since all of that information was written in the Gospels after the letters of Paul.

In sum, while we probably have as much information about Jesus as any other historical figure of his time, the information is sketchy and, above all, filtered through the minds and the culture of the early Christian community. As Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan says: "...the presentation of Jesus in the New Testament is in fact itself a representation: it resembles a set of paintings more closely than it does a photograph." 13

Fortunately, most Christians today recognize that much of that traditional way Christians of centuries ago understood claims made in the scriptures must be rejected by the findings of history and the natural and human sciences. David Tracy of Chicago Divinity School, who has analyzed the clash between faith and science for many years, says "To continue to uphold a literal interpretation of the Genesis account is simply and irrevocably impossible for anyone who accepts the findings of the modern physical and life sciences. To continue to believe a literalist theory of scriptural inspiration seems no longer an option to anyone who has investigated the results of modern historical study of the scriptures." 14

But Tracy does not conclude therefore that the Christian faith must crumble before the onslaught of science, and neither should we. He points out that the task of theologians must be to remain true to the church-community of which they are members, while at the same time being committed to the methods and insights of current scholarly inquiry. Indeed, this is the task of every Christian, and it is important to stress that the two approaches are not incompatible: that Christians can be both true to the faith, and at the same time true to the canons of modern scientific inquiry.

The Gospel as Parable

We are helped considerably by the fact that the scriptural Gospel is itself clothed in parables and in metaphors. Parables are familiar stories that embody unfamiliar and significant truths. Metaphors are words that do the same thing: they help us see the ordinary world in extraordinary ways. Parables and metaphors can never be taken literally, or else they lose their meaning. A parable speaks about God being like a father who welcomes his wayward son home. It describes the Kingdom of God as being like a mustard seed, tiny but with great potential, or like the leaven in bread that transforms the whole loaf, or like a wedding feast to which all are invited. The Gospel speaks in very human terms, but in terms which connect things in our minds -- that event with our events, that time with our times, that relationship with our relationships.

The gospel does not go off into mystical abstractions. It does not propose complicated theological systems. In fact, it is very anthropomorphic, that is, it describes ultimate reality in very human terms: father, son, weeping, rejoicing. But, as Elizabeth Sewell says: What else could it do? "Human beings cannot think or move in nonhuman ways: given what we are, we must think and move 'anthropomorphically.'" 15

Sallie McFague has written in her helpful book Speaking in Parables that the most significant parts of the New Testament consists of various parables: "... as New Testament scholars agree, the parables not only are Jesus' most characteristic form of teaching but are among the most authentic strata in the New Testament." 16 In fact, she holds, the entire New Testament is itself a kind of parable. She points out that even the letters of Paul are "on a continuum with the parable." That is, Paul's letters are close to oral speech, with dialog, accusation, defense, and exclamations that grab the reader. They also contain a great deal of confession, so that Paul "not only uses himself, but he thinks in and through himself: he takes himself as a human metaphor." 17

McFague makes the case that the parable is the preeminent form of Christian witness and proclamation, because it is able to express the deeper dimensions of human existence in ways that are alive and compelling. In this regard, the parable is a key to the ways in which we ought to be communicating "the Gospel" story today, for the parable provides a necessary corrective to the increasingly verbal, stultifying, and just plain boring Protestant theology that has developed during the last two centuries -- "a battle over words and what they mean." To the extent that our religion has become reduced to words, and even to words used to explain words -- in the worship service, in the scriptures, in life itself -- it ceases to have life-giving properties. But through parables and their retelling we have a clue to "the Gospel" and how it can be communicated in every age, including our own.

Meanings Are In People

This brings me to a second important lesson learned from my experience with the film "Parable." I learned that meanings are in people, that is, meanings, including the meanings of "the Gospel," are not "out there" someplace as an objective reality like a star or a mathematical table, but that there are no meanings except as people give meanings to things and relationships. The reason that meanings are not "out there," existing independently of people, is simply because meanings come about from the human relationships themselves; in fact, they exist in the relationships. If you don't believe it, try to imagine a meaning that is not connected in some way to a person.

Of course there are verifiable data which we can confirm. There are rules of geometry which do not change (though we may stop using them). Trees fall in the forest, whether we or not we are there to hear them. Things do exist "out there." But the meanings of things depend upon people and their relationship to other people and things. The same event may mean one thing to me, and something quite different to you, and both of us may (or may not) be "right." To my mother I am a son; to my wife I am a husband; to my daughter I am a father -- and they are all right. H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic study The Meaning of Revelation, put this idea in the context of religious revelation: " universal knowledge of things as they are in themselves is possible, ... all knowledge is conditioned by the standpoint of the knower. ... To speak of revelation now is not to retreat to modes of thought established in earlier generations but to endeavor to deal faithfully with the problem set for Christians in our time by the knowledge of our historical relativity." 18

Why is this so important? Because when we are dealing with religion, we are dealing with seismic emotions. People feel deeply about their faith, about its veracity, its verifiability, its reality, its meaning to them. Yet we get no farther than that committee of forty-three did with their New York World's Fair film if we insist that our Gospel is the Gospel, that the meaning which the Gospel has for me is somehow the Truth (with a capital T), while for all others its meaning is only partial Truth or, in some cases, actual Falsehood (with a capital F.)

Such thinking has justified endless bloody inquisitions throughout history, most of them justified on the basis that it is better to mutilate the flesh than to allow Falsehood (capital F) to destroy the soul. The Ayatollah Khomeini had the same clear justification for sending thousands of children-warriors into battle to defend the Faith (with a capital F).

"The Last Temptation of Christ"

A good example of the clash over meanings is the 1988 controversy about "The Last Temptation of Christ," a film version of the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. Magazines, newspapers, and TV stations gleefully recorded the events as the studio heads and theatre owners were picketed and attackers and supporters tossed their quotable quotes at each other and the press.

The diversity of opinion was exceeded only by its intensity. The Rev. Jerry Falwell said that Hollywood "... has never stooped so low. 'The Last Temptation of Christ' is utter blasphemy of the worst degree. Neither the label 'fiction' nor the First Amendment gives Universal the right to libel, slander and ridicule the most central figure in world history..." The Rev. Donald Wildmon charged: "The script ... is the most perverted, distorted account of the historical and biblical Jesus I have ever read." 19 Dr. Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ, said "Universal Pictures will always be remembered as the studio that launched an attack on the sanctity of all religions by making a film which blasphemes and demeans our Lord Jesus Christ. This time the Christians are not going to forget." 20

On the other hand, The Rev. Paul Moore, New York Episcopal bishop, affirmed: "The movie is artistically excellent and theologically sound. ... Christ is presented as a muscular, strong, manly person who sweated, bled, had doubts and was, as the Bible says, 'tempted in every way yet without sin.'" 21 The Rev. Dr. Joseph Brownrigg, a United Methodist with a Ph. D. in film and theology, called the film "the best Jesus movie that has ever been made." 22 And The Rev. Andrew Greeley, priest and author, wrote: ...(T)he film makes us think about who God is -- that is to say, what life means. If I were a pastor I'd take advantage of that challenge. I'd urge my adult education group to see 'The Last Temptation' and then compare its imagery with that to be found in the four Gospels and especially in the parables. Out of such a comparison would come, I think, a fruitful re-evaluation of who Jesus was and what He was." 23

Let us put aside the questions about the merits of the film. That is not the most important issue. Much more important is the question: what was really going on here? The answer is: a clash over the nature of meaning, or more precisely, the meaning of "meaning," in this case, the meaning of Jesus and the Gospel to individuals. Some believed their Truth (capital T) was objective, 100% accurate, and permanent, and that for anyone to understand or portray it otherwise (as through this film) would be harmful to the Truth, to those who "have" the Truth, and therefore even harmful to themselves. Others believed their truth (no capital T) was subjective and personal, something they developed over time, something neither final nor totally accurate, though they believed it was based on the best available evidence.

This conflict is not going to go away. It will continue to reappear in many different guises. So long as there are people, highly motivated, who believe their Truth is the only Truth, while others believe that such a position is unsupportable and harmful, we will continue to have inquisitions, Holy Wars, and film boycotts -- and the Gospel will continue to be misunderstood and misused.

I believe that what is important about Jesus and the Gospel is the experience that the people who followed Jesus had, the meaning they found in his life and death and resurrection, and consequently the meaning it can have for people today. We can never directly experience what the First Century Christians experienced, but we must try to understand their experience using the best tools of analysis that we have. And we must do the same thing for the "cloud of witnesses," those Christians of every earlier generation, who had their own unique understanding, interpretations and testimony. We must seek to know what they meant by the Gospel. Then, armed with the best possible understanding of the meaning of the faith to Christians over the centuries, we must develop our own meaning -- and seek to communicate it to others in ways they can understand in today's culture.

That is the agenda of this book -- to correlate earlier meanings of the Gospel with today's culture, especially as found in our communication media, in order to develop relevant understanding, interpretations and testimony today. Therefore, our next step is to examine in more detail the way Christian believers, that "cloud of witnesses," found meaning in Jesus and the Gospel throughout the Christian Era, and how their cultures influenced their own search for meaning.


1. John Dart, "Did Jesus Say That? Scholars Take a Vote." Los Angeles Times syndicated release, November 28, 1985

2. Gustav Niebuhr, "Scholars Assert that Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord's Prayer," Religious News Service release, October 17, 1988.

3. Jefferson to William Short, 31 October 1819, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, ed. Dickinson W. Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 388.

4. "Who Was Jesus?" in TIME Magazine, 15 August 1988, Vol. 132 No. 7, p. 38.

5. TIME, p. 38.

6. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Crossroad, 1979), p. 604.

7. A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), p. 7.

8. Schillebeeckx, p. 47.

9. Lucien Richard, "Christology and the Needs for Limits" in Ruy O. Costa (ed.), One Faith, Many Cultures: Inculturation, Indigenization, and Contextualization (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), p. 65.

10. Stephen Crites, "Myth, Story, History," in Tony Stoneburner, ed., Parable, Myth and Language (Cambridge: Church Society for College Work, 1968), p. 70.

11. Amos Wilder, The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 128.

12. McFague, p. 37.

13. Pelikan, p. 9.

14. David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: the New Pluralism in Theology (New York: Seabury, 1975), p. 5.

15. Elizabeth Sewell, The Human Metaphor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), p. 78.

16. Sallie McFague, Speaking in Parables (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 74.

17. McFague, p. 169-170.

18. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), pp. 7, 22.

19. Robert E.A. Lee, "'The Last Temptation of Christ'...Insulting or Instructive?" The Lutheran, 7 September, 1988, p. 17.

20. Press release from Dr. Bill Bright Organization, August 4, 1988.

21. Lee, p.17.

22. Peg Parker, "Last Temptation of Christ Given Positive Review for Seekers," United Methodist Reporter, October 7, 1988, p.3.

23. Andrew Greeley, "Blasphemy or Artistry?" in New York Times, August 14, 1988, Arts & Leisure Section, p. 1.